The hunt for a commercially viable biobutanol could finally be over thanks to an inspired, if ironic, bit of recycling by scientists working at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland.
They’ve taken the two main waste products from the Scotch whisky production cycle and brought them together in a process which outputs biobutanol, long heralded as a next generation biofuel because it produces up to 30% more power than ethanol and can be used in existing combustion engine cars without modification.
The process has now been patented by the University which has also set up a limited company to leverage the commercial possibilities of the invention.
Professor Martin Tangney, Director of the Biofuel Research Centre at Edinburgh Napier University, believes the biofuel could be sold at garages alongside normal gas. He said, “I would expect to see this as a fuel in forecourts in years rather than decades”.
The irony of the discovery is that biobutanol was first produced in Scotch whiskey stills by Chaim Weizmann, although his aim was to produce acetone and butanol was just a by-product. Recent attempts have focused upon using a form of the yeast Weizmann used in existing ethanol plants, genetically modified to produce more butanol and less acetone and ethanol.
The new process could be applied much further afield than the Scotch whiskey industry. This produces 1,600 million liters of pot ale and 187,000 tonnes of draff annually, the two waste products which are used by the process to create biobutanol.
However these waste products are common to all whiskey manufacturing processes, so it’s possible the process or a slightly modified version of it could be used by the whiskey industry worldwide.
Furthermore draff is also produced by most forms of grain-based beer making, vastly expanding the potential scope of applications of a modified version of the process.
All this is in the future. For now, perhaps the most important point is that the biobutanol is coming from a waste product, not a specially grown crop.
As Professor Tangney comments, “While some energy companies are growing crops specifically to generate biofuel, we are investigating excess materials such as whisky by-products to develop them. This is a more environmentally sustainable option.” Amen to that.